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December 02, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers' offense stinks it up in loss to Celtics

The Sixers and Celtics competed in a battle of whose offense could stink less, and Boston emerged victorious in an 88-87 garbage fire.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Shake Milton was basically the only reason the Sixers remained in this game after the first quarter. The Celtics kicked Philly's ass up and down the floor for a lot of the opening 12 minutes, but sometimes you just need one guy to get and stay hot in order to lift everybody else up during a miserable performance.

It has been a while since we've seen one of those efforts from Milton, and part of his success came from attacking the obvious weakness in Boston's setup. With the Celtics playing a two-big lineup that featured miserable defender Enes Kanter, Milton got some easy looks from midrange out of handoffs and pick-and-rolls that forced Kanter to defend in space. Once Milton got Kanter to drop, the work was all but finished, and it's the sort of thing the Sixers should have done whenever Kanter was on the floor, in this matchup and every other time they've played him throughout his career.

(Put some blame on the big guy for their inability to commit to that strategy, but we'll get to that part eventually.)

Milton's night got much quieter after his terrific opening stanza, but he was one of the only players who looked like a semi-credible attacker, so he's on the good list tonight.

• Andre Drummond was absolutely outstanding in the first half, no qualifiers necessary. Playing higher against pick-and-rolls than he has for most of this season, Drummond put pressure on Boston's perimeter players out of pick-and-rolls and scrambled hard to recover to where he was needed on the back end, making smart reads along the way. A lot of his impact defensively has come through whatever he can do at the rim this year, but Drummond showed a level of give-a-damn that far exceeded a lot of his recent performances, and it made a big difference for a second unit that got Philly back into this game. 

With Drummond in a reserve role the last three games, he has made an impact in 2-for-3, which is a much better rate than we saw during the stretch when Embiid was out due to COVID. That he was able to impact this game 

• Seth Curry is the human bailout for 50 percent of Philadelphia's worst offensive possessions. They can look absolutely terrible for the first 14-18 seconds of the clock, posting up and overdribbling or standing around and doing nothing, and Curry can simply shoot them out of it. There will be taller players in his face or rearview contests bearing down on him, and except for in a few rare instances, he hardly even seems to notice. 

They needed Curry to be even more involved in their second-half offense to get this one over the line, and given how critical he proved to be in the second round last year, it should be obvious to everyone that the Curry-Embiid partnership is their path to scoring when it matters. Yeah, you want to develop Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris has his moments, but if you ran Embiid/Curry plays 100 percent of the time in the final five minutes, nobody would complain and you'd probably execute successfully a lot more often than they do with the democratized approach. I'd rather see 100 DHOs with Embiid and Curry than even 2-3 mid-post isolations for Harris.

• We will get to Joel Embiid's crimes against humanity on offense below, but it should be noted that he was an absolute force at the rim on defense, at least when he finally started to lock in during this game. Celtics players tried their damndest to get clean looks around the basket on Wednesday night, and every time they thought they had a clear shot to the hoop, Embiid swooped in like a phantom, turning away shots or forcing off-balance nonsense that never had a chance to drop.

(Just as important — Embiid's dominance of the defensive glass. His job as the final line of defense can sometimes depress his rebounding numbers, )

For all their errors and issues on the offensive end, the Sixers dug in and worked their asses off on defense, working as a unit to right their wrongs and keep the Celtics stuck in the mud along with them. Matisse Thybulle was a zero on offense, but he dogged Jayson Tatum every second he was matched up with him, forcing the Celtics' wing to exert a lot of energy to accomplish a whole lot of nothing. Georges Niang offered a lot of great, timely help away from the play, forcing the Celtics to reset and recycle on possessions where they never found an open look again.

Even Tobias Harris, who played one of his worst games of the year, managed to come up with a terrific block of Dennis Schroder on Boston's final possession of the fourth quarter, staying down on his feet in space until Schroder thought he had his window, tipping the attempt and giving the Sixers a chance to win the game on the ensuing possession. To a man, everyone made a play of some defensive consequence at some point in the game, even if it was as basic as a good rotation or tag on the roll man.

This game will get thrown into the "extremely forgettable" category overall because of how bad they were on offense, but the defensive work on tape should be a point of pride for this group. They can build on that, if nothing else.

The Bad

• You can go back and check the numbers yourselves, but Joel Embiid had one of the greatest midrange seasons of all-time last year. The big guy absolutely buried opponents from an area of the floor that has been abandoned by many players and teams, and it was a big part of his MVP push.

The touch has not been there this season. There are obvious reasons/excuses for that, namely the long layoff that had him away from basketball for a bit, but the dip in efficiency has made his approach to the game much less effective, putting a spotlight on his tendency to shoot jumpers rather than exploit his size advantages.

Guarded by a combination of Al Horford and Enes Kanter, Embiid opened the game 0-for-7 from the field, his single point coming on an early transition play where he drew a foul and made one at the charity stripe. It's not like the Celtics were playing swarming pressure defense on the big guy, either. There were far too many possessions where Embiid had opportunities to go to work one-on-one and never made much of an effort to capitalize. 

One of the reasons this team needs a lead playmaker and organizer, all due respect to Tyrese Maxey, is that there is no one on this team who can pull rank and get Embiid to fall into a game plan centered around the perimeter guys when they have better matchups to exploit. Jimmy Butler's tenure here was revealing in that it showed the big guy was willing to be a frequent pick-and-roll partner for somebody if it was a guy he trusted to lead the offense. As it is, there are too many times where Embiid stares down a guy like Maxey asking for a pick, waiting to get the ball so he can do the attacking himself.

Even then, a lot of their problems could be alleviated if Embiid simply makes shots or adjusts his approach when one style isn't working. It's not like the Celtics played particularly good defense against him, and Embiid got to his preferred spots on the left block more often than not. It's entirely possible his day-to-day fitness is just hard to predict and will lead to bad performances like this, but I don't really buy that excuse, given that he looked good enough physically to control the paint on defense all night.

• All of that said about Embiid, at least there was a sense of purpose to what he was doing on offense. The Sixers were getting him the ball where he likes it and the big guy was taking shots he's confident he can make. It didn't go well, obviously, but it made sense on some level.

Tobias Harris, on the other hand, was absolutely dreadful and looked completely lost at times in this one. He was so out of sorts with what was happening around him that Harris came back and intercepted a hit-ahead pass to Tyrese Maxey for no discernible reason, feeling the need to invade Maxey's air space for no tangible benefit.

For a player whose whole sales pitch is being a multi-faceted talent that can toggle in and out of different roles, Harris has a surprising number of games where he just can't seem to get out of the way of his teammates. A hat tip to my friend Jackson Frank, who pulled a screenshot of the exact possession that made me roll my eyes and groan:

Brett Brown ain't around to blame anymore. Ben Simmons and his missing jumper can't take the attention away from this. All you're seeing here is dumb basketball, and a lack of awareness for what is developing around you. Harris is twice as valuable (if not more!) just standing in the corner ready to shoot on this possession.

(On the positive side of things, I did like Harris hunting threes a little more aggressively than he usually does in the first half. He let a trio of triples fly with Celtics defenders invading his airspace, and it's usually tough enough to get him to take them when he's wide open. Unfortunately, we saw the latter tendency pop up in the second half.) 

• Tyrese Maxey has earned strong reviews for his decision-making in the sense that he avoids turnovers and makes sure the Sixers get looks at the rim, but he has played with a level of hesitation in transition that I hope the coaching staff has pointed out to him. On a first-half runout for Philadelphia, Maxey had a one-on-one matchup to attack and decided to pull the ball out in service of an immediate off-movement three for Matisse Thybulle, which ranks near the worst possible outcomes for the Sixers on any offensive possession. 

(While we're on the subject, if I ever watch another possession that is a designed post-up for Tobias Harris that flows into a three-point attempt for Thybulle, I might consider quitting my job. My goodness.)

Hesitation was the theme of the night for Maxey, who stepped out of a handful of open threes to get to his preferred spots in the midrange. The tendency to do that is okay-ish when he's actually making those shots, but Maxey is in a funk right now after a long stretch of success from all over the floor, regressing toward the mean after an unsustainable run with Joel Embiid on the shelf. Record-scratch moments have to be kept at a minimum, and Maxey did not help matters there on Wednesday.

• Matisse Thybulle is just not going to be playable in crunch time until he starts making shots. Even then, it's going to take a long time for teams to actively care about him getting open looks. They didn't have access to a suite of options on Wednesday, with Danny Green still being brought back slowly as a result of the hamstring issue, but you can't play Thybulle and have Embiid absorb hard doubles on every possession with or without the ball.

I can understand Doc Rivers giving this a look and hoping you can gain enough from Thybulle on defense to justify testing it out. But letting this drag on for the entirety of crunch time and allowing the Celtics to basically have a free safety on the back end was absolutely ridiculous, and the sort of mistake you simply can't make as a coach.

• One more coaching complaint — why the hell are you drawing up the final play for Tobias Harris after the game he had? Was Mr. Magoo the guy drawing the ATO up?

The Ugly

• How in the world does one basketball game have two different extended stoppages to fix the net? What kind of Mickey Mouse operation are they running in Boston? 

• Shake Milton got pushed in the back into the stanchion by Josh Richardson in the first half with no call. I don't think Richardson was trying to injure a former teammate, but it was a braindead, dangerous play, and not only was it an obvious foul, it's the sort of play that should get immediately reviewed by the officials. His contact with Milton was not a play on the ball in any way.

• The Sixers used to be the team that could create size advantages against opponents, which is a luxury you'll basically always have when your point guard is a 6'10" dude. That has not been the case this season, and that led to matchups like the one we saw on Wednesday, where the Sixers opened the game with Seth Curry guarding Jaylen Brown. That is not the sort of thing you want to see, and at present, there's no way for the Sixers to avoid it. 

• Enes Kanter getting called for a three-second violation because he was tying his shoe in the paint in the middle of a possession just about sums this game up. This had all the quality of a middle school basketball game played at 11 am on a Sunday with at least one of the coaches hungover from karaoke night. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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